ARUA, Uganda -- Ugandan government troops finally have defeated the last remnants of Idi Amin's forces, capturing the fertile West Nile region of northern Uganda.
The campaign, launched in December, was the first major victory for the rag-tag, much maligned Ugandan army under Amin's successor, President Milton Obote.
The area north to the Sudan border from this small district capital - with the exception of the remote village of Nidigo -- is now in government control. But the victory has a hollow ring.
Fighting has reduced most of the West Nile to a refugee-filled wasteland. Almost 90 percent of the area's buildings have been leveled. In a 3-yearfight, more than 4,000 people have died.
Nor is the victory quite complete. Remnants of the Amin forces continue guerrilla attacks in West Nile and harassing Ugandan refugees in Sudan and Zaire.
In mid-April, 'Amin's army' ambushed a government truck near the ex-dictator's birthplace, Koboko, killing seven soldiers and wounding another 15.
'This kind of thing is likely to go on for some time,' said Uganda's military commander for the West Nile region, Maj. John Charles Ogole. 'It only takes two or three people hiding in the forest.
'The only thing we can do is to try and get the civilians back into the area and have them report the presence of guerrillas when they see them,' Ogole said.
Some civilians already have returned to hoe fields and build houses.
The West Nile district was the final stronghold for Amin's 10,000-strong army which fled before Tanzanian troops during the 1979 war that toppled the burly dictator.
Many of Amin's forces fled into neighboring Sudan and Zaire. Small pockets hid out in West Nile. With the withdrawal of Tanzanians in October 1981, Amin's army recaptured large sections of the area including the town of Arua, 220 miles north of Kampala.
The situation deteriorated. Last June the Ugandan army garrison at Koboko went on strike, followed by a looting rampage and a march southwards chanting: 'We are tired of eating mangoes'.
Amin's forces stayed on their tail, attacking from the rear and forcing a panic retreat that led to civilian massacres by government soldiers who treated everyone as an Amin sympathizer.
When the disorderly retreat reached the Umbachi Roman Catholic mission 4 miles from Arua, Ugandan soldiers opened fired on refugees there, killing more than 50 civilians, mostly women and children.
From that day until recently, Amin's forces controlled the West Nile region.
Ogole, a kind of legend among West Nile civilians, is given credit for turning a feared Ugandan garrison into something at least resembling an army that won the day.
Immediately after taking control, Ogole, a tough no-nonsense military commander, insisted his soldiers respect the rights of civilians.
'It has been our good relations with civilians that have given us victory here,' Ogole said.
The decisive battle took place late in 1981 as Ogole's forces fought northward village by village. By Ogole's account, his forces lost 36 men and Amin's forces 48,000.
But it was taming the civilian population that turned the tide.
'We fought a battle just outside Arua and captured six civilians who had been living in the guerrilla area,' Ogole said. 'We treated these people well and explained our policy of reconciliation. then we let them go back to the guerrilla-controlled area.
'The next day they returned with 3,000 people following them.'
Without civilian support, Amin's army was virtually finished. But with peace almost restored, remnants of Amin's soldiers have left behind some disturbing evidence of outside support for their cause.
Captured guerrilla arms included weapons not issued to the Amin or post-Amin armies, indicating fresh outside support. Captured guerrillas have spoken of military aid sent from Libya and Saudi Arabia, where Amin is currently in exile.